See the Icons of the Southwest on This Road Trip of a Lifetime

It will take you nearly 1,000 miles. It will show you wonders people cross continents to see. This road trip isn’t merely good—it’s the best in the world

Matthew Jaffe
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Although Sedona is best known (and frequently lampooned) for its spiritual vibe, it’s not as if the town, with its galleries, upscale restaurants, and spa-laden resorts, is the exclusive domain of wide-eyed mystics. And given Sedona’s many Native American sites and dreamscapelike terrain, the area does seem to have a certain power to it. Just take a hike on the Brins Mesa Trail and down into Soldier Pass. Look out on the sandstone turrets rising above the forest. Then eavesdrop as a self-anointed shaman at the Seven Sacred Pools explains the flow of energy from the Earth’s core to the area’s vortices. Who can really say? But Sedona will make a believer out of just about anyone. visitsedona.com.

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El Portal Sedona

With such details as log-beam ceilings, river-rock fireplaces, and flagstone floors, the suites in this Arts and Crafts–style adobe have a rustic elegance that beautifully captures the romance of the Southwest. From $259; elportalsedona.com.

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Elote Cafe

The long wait is part of the ritual at this wildly popular no-reservations Sedona spot, but with margaritas and terrace seating, it goes by quickly. Signature items include lamb adobo, tomato and Oaxaca cheese salad, and smoked pork cheeks over a corn cake. $$; 771 State 179; elotecafe.com.

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Brins Mesa Trail

The easy Brins Mesa Trail leads to Sedona's gorgeous red rock formations.

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No town has more road-trip cred than Winslow: A major stop on the Santa Fe Railway and on Route 66, Winslow was for generations the gateway to Arizona’s tourist wonders. And one of the greatest wonders was right in town. After designing a chain of spectacular hotels for the Santa Fe Railway and noteworthy buildings in Grand Canyon National Park, Mary Colter envisioned her final railroad hotel, La Posada de Winslow, as the 19th-century hacienda of a Spanish ranching family. For more local color, grab a burrito at nearby Brown Mug Cafe ($; 308 E. Second St.; 928/289-9973).

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La Posada de Winslow

In Mary Colter's hacienda-inspired design, La Posada has a rambling quality, as if succeeding generations had added on to the estate. So Colter would appreciate that three contemporary Southern Californians saved her 1929 masterwork, and that they, too, have left their mark. When Allan Affeldt, his painter wife, Tina Mion, and sculptor Daniel Lutzick arrived in Winslow in 1997, La Posada was a gutted ghost. The trio began the long—and still ongoing—process of resurrecting the hotel. They restored period details and brought in vintage, hand-painted furniture to replace original pieces sold off decades ago. Today, hotel guests can sip margaritas at The Turquoise Room restaurant, watch some of the 90 trains that rumble by daily, and appreciate the way in which past and present combine to create something unforgettable. From $119; laposada.org.

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The Turquoise Room

Chef-owner John Sharpe’s Southwest cuisine pairs well with the decor in La Posada’s restaurant. Keep it local with the Churro lamb sampler, which includes one variation with tomatillo and green chile. $$$; 305 E. Second St.; theturquoiseroom.net.

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Rock Art Ranch

Past the main gate, owner Brantley Baird and his dog, Brandy, wait in a Chevy pickup parked near impressive slabs of petrified wood. Still lean and rangy in his 70s, Baird is every inch the Arizona cowboy. After a lifetime here, he knows his land’s secrets and will share them with people interested enough to drive down the backroads to his ranch. First, Baird leads the way to unexcavated Native American pithouses, where pottery shards lay out in the open. In one spot, he shows off a primitive map, pecked into a flat rock probably centuries ago, that depicts local water sources. But the highlight is the petroglyph canyon that gives the ranch its name. For several hundred yards, the rock art covers the cliffs on both sides of Chevelon Canyon. Some panels, like one depicting a hunt, are easy to interpret. Others are less obvious, as are abstract petroglyphs that may be 7,000 years old. Who painted them? The ranch sits at what was a convergence point between the ancient Puebloan, Mogollon, and Sinaguan cultures, so the possibilities are numerous. “We get lots of archaeologists, and they’re the ones who go to school to learn it all,” says Baird. “I got my ideas too. Truth is, I can’t say that anybody really knows for sure.” Rock Art Ranch: Tours $35; by reservation only; (928) 288-3260.

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Bison grazing near Rock Art Ranch.

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Chevelon Creek Bridge

Before the Rock Art Ranch turnoff, Territorial Road crosses a one-lane bridge over Chevelon Creek. Recently restored, the 1913 span is one of Arizona’s oldest and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Route 66 marker

The backbone of any Southwestern road trip, Route 66 is marked by this historic sign near Rock Art Ranch.

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Wigwam Hotel

The classic Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, AZ.

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Petrified Forest National Park

Most people detour quickly through Petrified Forest National Park from Interstate 40, and the fact is that just a short visit delivers the goods. There are easy-to-reach overlooks of the orange- and white-banded hills of the Painted Desert (part of Petrified Forest, although people often think of them as separate). And just off the park road, you can see slabs of petrified wood that even with their psychedelic swirls of reds, violets, and greens, do look unmistakably like fallen trees—right down to the bark. Consider taking extra time to appreciate exactly what you’re looking at. The logs are the remains of trees that lived 200 million years ago. They grew not in the Arizona desert, but in semitropical forests 1,500 miles to the south before continental drift transported them north. The trees slowly turned to stone after being submerged in bogs where minerals replaced the organic material and took the form of the wood. So sure, there’s a lot of driving ahead—and no shortage of kitschy tourist traps on I-40. But what’s a few extra minutes when you can touch a world that stretches back eons? $10/vehicle; nps.gov/pefo.

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Painted Desert

The Painted Desert’s Tepees, in Petrified Forest National Park.

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Agate House

Located in Petrified Forest National Park, Agate House demonstrates an ancient Puebloan practice of using petrified wood as a building material. Made almost entirely of petrified wood, the structure is partially reconstructed from the original, estimated to have been built over a thousand years ago.

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Blue Mesa Trail

Red rock fatigue is an aesthetic hazard in the Southwest. Find relief in a cooler palette at Blue Mesa, where the 1-mile trail leads into hills striped with pale purples and grays.

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Painted Desert Inn

Don’t miss lovely Painted Desert Inn, now a museum.

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Gallup is both crossroads and border town. While most of today’s visitors come through (and quickly) on Interstate 40, Gallup has been a major railroad town since the 1880s and a long-time stop for drivers on Route 66. That historic highway’s motels make Gallup a living museum of vintage neon (none better than the Blue Spruce Lodge’s sign touting steam heat). And El Rancho Hotel, with its incongruous combination of a plantation-style façade and a rustic, lodgelike lobby featuring split logs and Navajo rugs, is one of the finest surviving roadside attractions anywhere in the Southwest. The town also serves as a bridge between Anglo and Native American worlds. The Zuni Reservation lies just to the south, with several other traditional pueblos to the east. And the Navajo Nation wraps around Gallup on the north and west. This makes Gallup a trading hub for the Southwest’s Indian Country, and if it lacks the adobe romance of a Taos or Santa Fe, it offers high-quality Native American jewelry, textiles, and pottery—at better prices too. thegallupchamber.com.

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El Rancho Hotel

Stop in for drinks in the handsome 49er Lounge at this classic hotel in Gallup. historicelranchohotel.com.

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Jerry's Cafe

A no-nonsense must for enchiladas and chiles relle­nos in Gallup. 406 W. Coal Ave.; (505) 722-6775.

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Hubbell Trading Post

Here’s the story. In 1878, a man named John Lorenzo Hubbell established a trading post on the Navajo Nation. A little improbably—he was only 25 and at that point spoke little Navajo—he became the premier Navajo trader of the late 19th and 20th centuries. His descendants lived on the property into the late 1960s. Now a National Historic Site, and run by a nonprofit organization, Hubbell’s operates much as it has for nearly 140 years. Navajo weavers bring in their handcrafted rugs—spun from the wool of shaggy Churro sheep, a herd of which graze outside—and pick up groceries and other provisions. Nearby, the Hubbell House, with its ceiling of ponderosa pine vigas and 18-inch-thick adobe walls, is much as it was when the family last lived there. Those vintage Native American baskets, hanging between the vigas? They were nailed to the ceiling by John Lorenzo Hubbell’s daughters. They don’t come cheap (a tiny rug will run $100, large ones up to $20,000), but you’ll find superb-quality Navajo rugs at Hubbell Trading Post, along with turquoise jewelry and Hopi baskets. Tour $2; nps.gov/hutr.

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Bill Malone Trading Company

Also good for rugs and jewelry is former Hubbell trader Bill Malone’s shop in Gallup. 235 W. Coal Ave.; (505) 863-3401.

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument

After you skirt a hardscrabble section of the Navajo town of Chinle, Canyon de Chelly National Monument—which you can practice pronouncing, Canyon de Shay, on your drive—feels like a red rock paradise. Sandstone cliffs enclose a series of connecting canyons, where local kids cool off in shallow creeks, and cottonwood trees, glowing with golden leaves in fall, line the banks. Tucked away in side canyons are orchards of peaches, apricots, and apples, plus well-tended plots of corn. Many of the farms still have log hogans, the traditional six- or eight-sided Navajo house, while high on the canyon walls, cliff dwellings, some 1,100 years old, attest to Canyon de Chelly’s deep and in many ways tragic history. On one cliff face, local Navajo say the petroglyph of a horseman near a crack in the rock prefigures Kit Carson’s 1864 arrival and the subsequent massacre and capture of most of the Canyon de Chelly’s residents. In Canyon del Muerto—the Canyon of Death—some 300 Navajo took refuge atop an 800-foot-high butte, now known as Fortress Rock, and outlasted the siege. Many of the area’s Navajo trace their ancestry back to those survivors. For them, Canyon de Chelly is not just a beautiful haven for the traditional ways, but a stronghold. A Navajo Masada. Canyon entry $2, overlooks free; nps.gov/cach.

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Sheep Rock

Although you can drive to overlooks of Canyon de Chelly (don’t miss 750-foot-high Spider Rock) to view iconic formations like Sheep Rock (pictured), the canyon comes most alive when you explore its interior with a guide like Adam Teller—a storyteller and historian with deep ancestral ties to the area. From $150; canyondechelly.net.

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Mesa Verde National Park

It blows in cold and fast, an out-of-season storm that surprises visitors on the ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace. Some are in shorts, and as hail and some snow begin to ice the ladders and trail down to the cliff dwellings, the ranger scrambles to get everyone under cover. But there was a reason that Ancestral Pueblo people built this 150-room complex here, around 800 years ago. Within the deep alcove, even as thunder bangs through the canyon and curtains of water cascade down from the overhang, everyone stays dry. Weather changes quickly at Mesa Verde National Park—the most significant remnant of ancient America in the United States, with nearly 5,000 archaeological sites. Once the storm passes, sunlight splashes on Spruce Tree House (pictured), considered the best preserved of the park’s 600-plus cliff dwellings. Beyond Spruce Tree House, on the moderate 3.2-mile Petroglyph Point Trail loop, thunder is replaced by the tap of a woodpecker and the drip of melted snow trickling from the trees. $15/vehicle; nps.gov/meve.

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Spruce Tree House

Mesa Verde's iconic Spruce Tree House.

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Nathaniel’s of Colorado

Drive 10 minutes east from the Mesa Verde park entrance and you come to another Southwestern landmark: Nathaniel’s of Colorado, where Master Hatter Nate Funmaker produces some of the finest cowboy hats west of the Pecos. A rabbit-fur Rancher will run you $450 (a beaver $825), but even if you’re not in the market for a cowboy chapeau, Nathaniel’s is a must-see. 140 N. Mesa St., Mancos, CO; nathanielsofcolorado.com.

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Abode at Willowtail Springs

Down a gravel road from the main highway but with easy Mesa Verde access, these cabins on 60 wildlife-filled acres look out across a small lake to the La Plata Mountains. From $249; willowtailsprings.com.

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Monument Valley

Straddling the Utah-Arizona border, weathered red mesas and buttes rise hundreds of feet from a vast plain and into an even bigger powder blue sky. For millions of people around the world, Monument Valley is the West. Sacred to the Navajo, it has costarred as setting for films from the classic (John Ford’s Stagecoach) to the, um, less acclaimed (Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West). Here, in a landscape seemingly designed for Imax, a half-real, half-mythical America came to life: wagon trains and cavalry charges and Native American horsemen silhouetted against the horizon. Access to outsiders is limited to the 17-mile main road into Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park or tours with Navajo guides. One way to get inside the familiar views is to hike the moderate 4-mile Wildcat Trail loop. The trail drops along dune slopes of fine red sands before following washes on the valley floor. Instead of simply observing the valley from a remove, you’re now part of the landscape as the trail circles the West Mitten Butte, one of the most famous formations. And suddenly you feel part of an epic too. $20/up to 4 people; navajonationparks.org.

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View Hotel

Modern as it is, this hotel successfully blends into the landscape, and, as its name would suggest, offers outstanding vistas of some of Monument Valley’s most classic formations from its rooms, all of which have balconies. The hotel also just opened a group of cabins. The best bets at the restaurant are the traditional dishes, especially the green chile stew and a red chile pork posole. From $159; monumentvalleyview.com.

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Twin Rocks Cafe

Local color at this pitstop in Bluff, UT, one of the gateways to exploring Monument Valley.

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Grand Canyon National Park

“That is so cool,” says a 20-something woman. Then her boyfriend solemnly intones, “It is definitely one big-ass canyon.” Another young woman nearby, overwhelmed to the point of exasperation, declares, “There’s just so much to look at! You can only look for so long!”

Yes, Grand Canyon National Park is a lot to take in. Patience is a virtue, whether you’re hoping to catch the canyon under just the right light or spot one of the condors that were reintroduced to the area in 1996. These endangered birds with 91/2-foot wingspans are out there. To spot one, you scan a chasm a mile deep and 10 miles wide at the South Rim. And when you finally see one, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. They are, to borrow a phrase, definitely big-ass birds. Condors are also curious, and at prime spots, like the Rim Trail, they’ll ride the thermals and come in for a look. Sometimes a condor will glide 20 feet above the trail, close enough for hikers to hear the silky rush of air through feathers. If that seems an almost impossibly majestic experience—well, that’s a Grand Canyon specialty. $25/vehicle; nps.gov/grca.

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South Rim views

For an uncrowded canyon view, look for an unmarked parking area just west of milepost 246 on the rim side of State 64. From there, an easy trail leads to secluded Shoshone Point.

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Desert View Watchtower

If you go into only one Mary Colter building at the South Rim, this is the one, thanks to its unique circular design, vintage Hopi murals, and some of the canyon’s finest views. About 24 miles east of Grand Canyon Village on State 64 at Desert View; nps.gov/grca.

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El Tovar Dining Room

Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, you’ll definitely want to dine in the park’s grandest restaurant, with its old-school service, native-stone and pine construction, and murals of Native American tribes. Decidedly less formal, the adjacent cocktail lounge serves small plates and is a lively spot where canyon guides and locals often come to kick back. $$$; 1 El Tovar Rd.; (928) 638-2631.